A new proposal calls for linking downtown Seattle to its central waterfront through the use of staircases, ramps and plazas.

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In a bold statement that may be too much for Seattle, a celebrated landscape architect hired by the city to help redesign the downtown waterfront has proposed a grand promenade between the Pike Place Market and the Seattle Aquarium, including a series of tiered plazas and staircases overlooking Elliott Bay and the Olympics.

But local architects and city planners politely are pushing back against James Corner’s vision for the Pike/Pine “overlook folds,” as he calls them.

At their suggestion, Corner last month scaled back his design to be more in keeping with the Market’s small stalls, alleyways and what the late preservationist Victor Steinbrueck once called its “humble” buildings.

While final design is yet to come, Corner’s new schematic shows a narrower descending ramp and elevated plazas that would allow the Market to expand down the hill while still offering sweeping marine views.

“We’re not afraid of bold. We love bold. But now we’re trying to make it fit Seattle,” said Marshall Foster, planning director for the city.

A year after the acclaimed designer of New York’s High Line project began meeting with Seattle residents and trading visions, Corner and his design team have reached some consensus with the Seattle Central Waterfront Committee, which is charged with delivering a strategic plan to Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council in June.

There’s no funding for any of the proposals, but they include a pocket beach between the foot of South Washington Street and the Colman Ferry Dock, another hill climb with covered escalators or cable cars at Union Street and a view overlook in Belltown.

Reuniting the downtown to the waterfront and a series of great public parks where Alaskan Way now runs is one of the big ideas to emerge from the preliminary planning.

With the viaduct scheduled for demolition in 2016 and the massive sea wall along Alaskan Way badly deteriorated and in need of replacement, city leaders have begun planning for the redevelopment of 26 blocks along Elliott Bay from South Washington Street to Broad Street.

Indeed, civic leaders are comparing the vision and excitement around the waterfront planning to those leading up to the 1962 World’s Fair, an ambitious undertaking that asserted Seattle’s confidence about its place in the world and its future.

“Seattle seems to reinvent itself every 50 years,” said Maggie Walker, co-chair of the Central Waterfront Committee. “This is about Seattle rethinking what’s possible and redeveloping itself in a way that’s really cool.”

The committee’s plan will include project phasing, cost estimates and ongoing maintenance and operations. Preliminary estimates on the sea wall alone are between $310 million and $390 million, according to the city Department of Transportation.

The city could run a bond or levy measure late this year or early next year to fund the sea wall. Reconstruction is scheduled to begin in September 2013. Some funding for the redesigned waterfront park also could be included in that ballot measure.

Since Corner’s team began meeting with the public, more than 5,000 people have attended presentations and complemented his sometimes fanciful ideas (hot tubs, a mist machine) with their own.

At a forum last week to talk about how the waterfront can attract people in all weather, one man suggested a giant fire pit. Another wanted historic trains. A third insisted on “the story of salmon.”

“We’re open to all ideas now,” Foster said.

Some agreement has begun to emerge about several key locations along the waterfront. The design team is suggesting a restored beach at the foot of South Washington Street. Pier 48, which is bigger than Piers 62 and 63 (where Summer Nights on the Pier concerts used to be held), could become the festival pier. It’s closer to a transit hub and to the parking around the stadiums. It’s also close to the restaurants and nightlife of Pioneer Square.

But that may be one of the waterfront’s later projects. The state will use Pier 48 as a staging area to dig the waterfront tunnel, which will replace the viaduct. When the viaduct comes down, the city may use the pier for construction of the new Alaskan Way that will be rebuilt to the east, where the viaduct now stands.

Two connections

Corner suggests another big connector and view overlook at Union Street where a large escalator or cable-car could carry people up and down the hill.

At the base, he’s proposing a big water feature in a plaza along the waterfront that could entertain children with squirting jets on warm days, but disappear to leave an open public plaza for gatherings or holiday events, Foster said.

And project leaders agree connecting two distinctively Seattle destinations, the Market and the aquarium, in a way that allows people to move easily between the two, could enhance the experience of each.

About 10 million locals and tourists visit the Market each year, but only about 800,000 make their way down the warren of existing steps and elevators to the Seattle Aquarium and the waterfront plaza.

The city owns a one-acre parking lot immediately south of Victor Steinbrueck Park, where Corner’s “overlook fold” or walkway to the waterfront could start downhill.

But Market Executive Director Ben Franz-Knight said he and other Market supporters were worried that visitors would stream down a grand promenade to the waterfront and not “come back for lunch or dinner.”

In December, the Waterfront’s Design Oversight Committee asked Corner to scale back the big promenade. “We are … very concerned about the size, impacts, viability and cost of the overlook fold as proposed,” the committee wrote.

As a result, Franz-Knight said Corner came back last month with several sketches that show covered market stalls extending down Western Avenue and a narrower descending walkway that ends with a smaller view balcony over the rebuilt Alaskan Way.

Market officials also are concerned about the loss of revenue from the parking lot and two others under the viaduct that generate $600,000 a year. They have proposed using some of the space where the parking lot is now for Market cold storage, food production and housing to ensure 24-hour activity in the area.

“We absolutely support some great way to get to the waterfront,” said Franz-Knight, who previously ran the nonprofit historical Santa Monica Pier in California. “But we also want to preserve the market experience of small businesses, farmers, crafters, restaurants and housing.”

Leaders of the Seattle Aquarium also are using the project to think about their future. For a decade, long-range plans have called for doubling the size of the Aquarium to put it in the same league as the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the National Aquarium in Baltimore, both of which have about 2 million visitors a year.

“If we were to double the square footage in the context of a new waterfront, there’s every reason to believe we could be one of the country’s premier aquariums,” said Bob Davidson, president of the Seattle Aquarium.

Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s, which owns Pier 54, cautions that nothing will be built on the waterfront until at least 2016, after the viaduct comes down, and that there’s no money now for any of it.

But he shares civic leaders’ optimism that the project can deliver a waterfront as spectacular as that of Vancouver, B.C., or Sydney, Australia.

“In the end,” Donegan said, “I think we’re going to end up with something really terrific.”

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @lthompsontimes